Student self-governance — the right of students to govern their own academic affairs, adjudicate violations of our community values, enact change at the University and hold administrators accountable — is under threat. It’s been repeatedly violated by University administrators and has been called a sham and broadley dysfunctional by prominent student journalists.
In 1994, under threat of lawsuit, the University demanded the Honor Committee hold a new trial for a student who had been previously dismissed. A few years ago, the University intervened in the Student Council CIO recognitions process, again under threat of lawsuit, to grant CIO status to Young Americans for Freedom — a far right group which was denied CIO status for forcing members to sign the Sharon Statement. But perhaps the most egregious attack on self-governance in recent memory is Housing and Residence Life’s intervention in its student-governed disciplinary process, which ended with a dedicated resident advisor becoming effectively homeless in a matter of days. University administration has shown a continued disrespect for the right of self-governance, and its decline threatens the very foundations of this University. Self-governance is a right which has been fought for for centuries, and it’s our duty to save it.
Let me be clear — I understand the importance of working with, rather than against, University forces. Cooperation is always the more efficient, more productive choice. I also do not intend to discount the importance and effectiveness of our current self-governance institutions. In most cases, they serve as strong advocates for the student body and are successful in governing our affairs. Over the last year, for example, we’ve seen a number of student actions which have steered the direction of the University. Students rallied in support of the New College Curriculum to steer the future of the College. The Cavalier Daily and Student Council were unrelenting in their efforts to hold administrators accountable for unjust practices in the Offices of Admissions and Advancement, and the Living Wage Campaign held a rally outside of a Board of Visitors meeting to encourage a raise for University faculty and staff. And just a few days ago, partly in response to reporting from The Cavalier Daily, the Honor Committee announced it is taking up new policies to help fill the gaps in the Title IX process.
But when the institutions we have in place fail — when administrators refuse to meet with student leaders, when we are led in circles, when we are outright ignored — we should never close the door on more pointed actions. Student self-governance has stopped short of using disruption and civil disobedience as tactics to achieve goals, and it’s time we bring them back into the equation. If we do not, we risk a continued administrative erosion of our right to self-governance.
There are dozens of examples of disruption and civil disobedience successfully achieving student demands when used as last-resorts — the most compelling being the May Days protests of 1970. Following the Kent State shootings and former University President Edgar Shannon’s refusal to sign Student Council’s anti-war demands, students stopped going to classes, occupied the Navy ROTC building, stormed the president’s mansion on Carr’s Hill at midnight and rioted on the north side of the Rotunda. Just five days after Shannon refused to sign Student Council demands, he addressed thousands of students on the Lawn — denouncing the Vietnam War and announcing a letter to Virginia’s senators criticizing the government response to Kent State.
I am not saying we should storm University President Jim Ryan’s mansion every time something does not go our way — I am saying students shouldn’t fear administrative retaliation for our activism. Students must not be afraid to engage in radical acts of resistance to administrative overreach, unjust and inequitable practices, mistreatment of staff and policies contradictory to our values. Self-governance is not student subsidization of administrative operations — it is not “glorified bookkeeping.” It is a right to control this University’s path forward. It is a right which students have fought for for hundreds of years. We have a duty not just to ourselves — but to the future students of the University — to continue that fight. What are they going to do, give us detention?
Noah Strike is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.